In front of St. Peter’s Basilica, there are five bronze doors, and the one on the far left, as you’re facing the basilica, is referred to as the ‘Door of Death.’ The reason it’s called this is because, traditionally speaking, those are the doors they take the bodies of the popes through for the last time before they bury them in the crypt of St. Peter’s. So, over time it got the nickname of the ‘Door of Death,’ because that is where the bodies were brought through.
On the image of the Door of Death there is a whole series of scenes of saints dying, including Jesus and Mary. And it was a door that was actually commissioned by Pope John XXIII to be redone. The old one was being replaced, and there was a big contest in regards to who was going to get the commission. Eventually a Communist atheist won the commission. He was Giacomo Manzu who became a great friend to Pope John XXIII. Imagine! This Communist atheist won the right to create the door right in the height of Communist strength throughout the world. And as Manzu was actually doing the Door of Death, Pope John himself died. And so what Manzu wanted to do to honor his patron, to honor his good friend, was to change the final panel. Originally, it would have been an image of a saint dying. So he changed the final panel to be an image of his friend, John XXIII.
The artifact we have here is actually an original charcoal sketch from Manzu as he prepared to do this final panel for the Door of Death. Again, it’s an historic item connected not just with John XXIII, but also with St. Peter’s itself. And so it has been on the cover of books and of Time magazine–this actual sketch–because of the relationship between this Communist atheist with the good holy Pope and the significant role he played in the creation of this door of the Basilica.
The question people always asked me is how I got this item. This item was actually put at auction. There was a woman who was married to a man very close to Manzu. And she was in Milan. And after he died she was cleaning out his papers in the attic and in all his files, and she came across this item. It was literally rolled up. And so she saw it and thought, “Well, this must have a certain amount of importance to it.” And so, sure enough, she offered it at auction, and you can see that on the backside of it, it actually has a stamp from Manzu, authenticating it, with his signature. He signed underneath, on the bottom of the image of the Pope, and then he dated it, 1963, the year of the Door of Death. And then the backside also shows his signature and the stamp authenticating it.
So lots of these items are still locked up and in people’s files. I’m just waiting for the next thing to come along.
All of these items have their little history about how they got out. And that’s the history of this item!
An added piece of information involves the inclusion on the Door of Death of the death of Mary who is portrayed in one of the panels. The Church has always been involved in the long-standing debate as to whether or not Mary biologically died. The Holy See has never made a theological statement about that one way or the other. And so looking at the tradition of theological debates, the Church actually accepts both as being valid and orthodox in accepting that either Mary died biologically or she didn’t. The important thing is that she was assumed into Heaven bodily. You can actually see her tomb in Jerusalem. There are strong arguments for her death and strong arguments for her non-death.
The fact that Giacomo Manzu put her death on the Door of Death shows what side of the argument he was on. His belief was that she was assumed body and soul into heaven.